Slippery Rock hopes to go the distance behind transfer duo
Last year at this time, quarterback Roland Rivers III and running back Wes Hills were a combined 1,200 miles away from Slippery Rock: Rivers at Valdosta State (Ga.) and Hills at Delaware.
These days, the transfers share a backfield that has catapulted The Rock (8-1, 6-0 PSAC West) to a division title and a spot in the conference championship Nov. 10 against No. 11 West Chester.
“We’re all just in sync right now,” said Rivers, a junior who began the season as a third-stringer. “We just want to keep this momentum going, win the PSAC championship and get ourselves into the (Division II) playoffs.”
Rivers and Hills share much in common. Both are big for their positions: Rivers at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and Hills at 6-2, 218. Both fought through injuries in recent years. And both chose Slippery Rock, in part, to escape distractions as they pursue NFL dreams.
Their additions helped transform The Rock from a finesse offense last year into a powerful, versatile attack. Slippery Rock leads the PSAC and is 11th in the nation with 40.8 points per game. It ranks second in the league is rushing (201.3 yards per game) and third in passing (287.1 ypg).
The transformation started with what coach Shawn Lutz called a “relentless” recruitment of Hills, a two-year captain at Delaware who averaged 8.2 yards per carry in 2016. He was declared academically ineligible for 2017 and said he considered entering the NFL Draft since scouts graded him as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect. However, Hills said he decided to play his senior season so he could “get more film and polish my craft before making that leap.”
Said Lutz: “We knew what we needed in our offense for us to be successful. The thing about Wes is he’s not just a big running back. He can do everything. He can run in between the tackles. He can run on the perimeter. ... He has a nice mix of both qualities that is hard to find at this level.”
Hills has been as good as advertised, rushing for 906 yards and nine touchdowns this season despite missing two-plus games with a shoulder injury. In last week’s division-clinching victory over Cal (Pa.), he ran for 248 yards and four touchdowns.
“We have an NFL running back playing D-II football,” Rivers said. “That’s definitely a blessing to have as a quarterback.”
Rivers’ emergence was harder to predict. He sat out last season at Valdosta State with a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder and stayed with the team through the spring. In the summer, though, Rivers said he craved a new environment, and Slippery Rock needed a quarterback after one of its freshman recruits pulled out of his commitment. Rock offensive coordinator Justin Roper previously served as QBs coach at Valdosta State and worked with Rivers for two years there, so that connection led to a visit July 28.
“Everything seemed to work out,” said Rivers, an Atlanta native. “My favorite color is green. It seemed so fitting to come up here and put on a green uniform and be part of this team.
“I was willing to accept the challenge. I wanted to see if I could play in the cold and all those different types of things. I consider myself a potential NFL quarterback.”
Rivers didn’t arrive until the third day of training camp, so he began the season behind Andrew Koester and Taylor King on the depth chart. That changed quickly when both suffered injuries in Week 2. Since Rivers took over, The Rock are 7-0, and he has thrown for 1,806 yards and 19 touchdowns to go with 426 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, I didn’t blink for a second,” Lutz said when Rivers became starter. “I saw enough of him in camp to realize he has all the God-given attributes you could want. He’s big. He can run. He can make the intermediate throws. He can make the sideline throws. It was never about him being better than the other guys. Those guys just knew the offense a little bit better.
“He’s like a Cam Newton-type. He’s hard to tackle because he’s so big.”
Rivers said he likes the Newton comparison, especially because he worked with him during high school at a seven-on-seven camp. But Rivers really tries to emulate a QB who plays much closer to Slippery Rock: the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger. Albeit the younger, more mobile version.
“I tell everyone I have Ben Roethlisberger’s Fathead on my wall at home,” Rivers said. “He inspired me to play quarterback.”